Can anyone make a decent steak tartar?

2017-05-18 12:47

Steak tartar is one of my favourite dishes. It is a dish that is perfect for our warm climate. On any sunny morning (summer or winter) it is the perfect dish for a late breakfast or for lunch. Depending on the condiments it is served with, this simple dish allows one to explore and enjoy a wide range of tastes. And it is a perfect match for any glass of wine (or two!) whatever your taste. Due to its relatively small size, it isn’t a dish that will leave you bloated afterwards and it fits a wide range of diets - again depending on the condiments it is served and enjoyed with. There is just one problem that I have found with steak tartar and that is that very few restaurants seem to know how to make and serve it!

In my hometown of Pretoria, a number of our premium and popular restaurants feature steak tartar on the menu. The problem is just that to date none of them has made the grade! This is really baffling as steak tartar is such an exceedingly simple dish to make. At the heart of the dish is a piece of prime beef fillet. This should suitably be dry aged to ensure that it is not soggy or bloody and then chopped by hand – never minced! This chopped meat is then served with a few condiments such as chopped onions, salt and pepper, gherkins, herbs etc. And of course there is the raw egg yolk – more about that later. The beauty of the dish is that it allows one to mix small bites of meat with different combinations of the condiments thus triggering a whole array of tastes. Magic! Traditionally served with frites but some people enjoy it with fresh bread, a bun or even toast. The simplicity and flexibility of the dish coupled with the range of tastes it offers is unrivalled. So what is the problem?

As stated previously, ordering steak tartar in Pretoria invariably leads to severe disappointment. The big no-no is that the chopped meat is typically pre-mixed with some condiments (who knows what?) and is then served as a lump of compressed meat – a raw “mystery ball” would be an apt description. In this, the chef has simply removed the greatest feature of the dish: the range of tastes on offer. Somewhat of a case of: it’s my way or the high way? My first reaction when such a compressed ball is put down in front of me is one of wanting to throw it at somebody….

We recently visited a new Bistro and Gin Bar that has opened in Pretoria and is all the rage in town. The menu features some interesting meat dishes including locally produced Wagyu Beef and steak tartar. I simply had to try the steak tartar…. it all looked so promising. I shouldn’t have bothered! There it was: a nice and heavy clump of meat. At least they had the decency to serve the egg yolk separately….. How can chef after chef get it so wrong?

Amidst the snickering about “that is Pretoria for you” or “what do you expect in Bulls country?” let me hastily add that there is one fantastic tartar served in Pretoria. You can find it at Tasha’s on Brooklyn Square. This however, is a salmon tartar served in the classical steak tartar mould: freshly cut salmon served with chopped onion, sliced tomato, freshly cut avocado (a decent portion!), fresh coriander leaves, chopped chillies, soya sauce and thinly sliced toasted baguette. For brunch or lunch this is my go-to dish in Pretoria – always enjoyed with a sauvignon blanc or sometimes (if I feel extravagant) a pinot noir. This wonderful dish served by Tasha’s exemplifies everything I have said about steak tartar.

My regular enjoyment of Tasha’s salmon tartar has lulled me into a false sense of security however. Recently, I lunched in the newly opened Menlyn Main, at a well-known Asian restaurant that has been for years the landmark in Pretoria of all things sushi and other exotic dishes. This was a safe bet to order salmon tartar if ever there was one. Don’t you believe it! There on a plate, was the compressed ball of cut salmon served with…. nothing – al la steak tartar Pretoria!

So, if you are a chef in Pretoria (or anywhere else for that matter) who is not yet serving steak tartar or if you are one of those who have stuffed it up in the past, then consider this a challenge. Use your imagination and let the creative juices flow! You can come up with your own set of condiments to serve with your steak tartar: a secret blend of mixed herbs and spices, anchovies, homemade mayonnaise, grated fresh horse radish… the list is simply endless! You can offer it in different sizes: 50 gram, 100 gram or 150 grams to match the appetite of your customer. You can offer it with raw egg, poached egg or boiled egg to the liking of your customer. You can change your offering regularly so that we keep on coming back to enjoy the new tastes. You can do anything with this dish, but please, please, please spare us the bland old compressed meatball!

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